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Research offers insight into benefits of camp for military kids

by Luanne Williams

Can a three-day adventure camp in the White Mountains of New Hampshire make a real difference in the lives of military families? The answer is yes. The question is how.

Chris Harrist never went to camp as a kid, but he’s always known there was something transformative about the experience. As a sport sciences professor, he’s spent a lot of time researching exactly what that is.

“You could call it the Disney World effect, when you go inside the gates and everything seems magical and you don’t exactly know how that happens, but you can bet that Disney knows,” Harrist says. “We know kids come to camp and have transformative, life-changing experiences. We need to know what the mechanisms are that make that happen so we can share those.”

A male professor and female student look at a laptop screen.

Armed with a Reeves Summer Research grant, Harrist and senior Erin Brooks set out to better understand “the interactions and transactions that occur within youth programs that lead to positive development.” And although Harrist didn’t go to camp as a kid, he has spent plenty of time at a New England winter adventure camp for military families, a camp that he helped create while on staff at the University of New Hampshire.

“All kids have a certain amount of challenges, but you start layering in other risk factors that the military child may be dealing with: family separation during deployment; he may be the only military-dependent child in his school; he likely doesn’t have a lot of support systems,” explains Harrist, who grew up in a military family. “Creating this camp allowed us to bring kids together that have that in common. Then, there was another important layer: military-dependent children with disabilities.”

Knowing that military kids and those with disabilities often face social isolation, and armed with research showing that organized camping can help them build self-esteem and reduce anxiety, Harrist and other camp creators put together three-day experiences, filled with winter sports such as skiing and dog-sledding. The camp got underway in 2012 with the help of three other organizations: the U.S. Department of Defense; Operation: Military Kids; and Northeast Passage, a nonprofit specializing in therapeutic recreation.

During its first two years, which included 12 sessions (eight for military-dependent families and four for military-dependent families with children with disabilities), Harrist recorded roughly 24 hours of group interviews, listening as participants shared their camp experiences and gently prodding them to find out what affected them most.

It was these recorded conversations that kept Brooks and Harrist busy all summer. They listened for common themes and documented their prevalence in the feedback so they could isolate and share best practices with those in the camp industry and others serving at-risk youth.

Finding the right counselors

A female college student works with four elementary age girls at a day camp.

A Raleigh native and a community and commercial recreation major who has spent the past four summers as a camp counselor, Brooks says she’s already applying some of what’s she’s learning from the research and is sharing it with fellow counselors. A big takeaway: Staffing is of utmost importance, because relationships with counselors can make or break the experience.

“In multiple sessions, participants would talk about their counselors by name, saying this person was the fun one or this person was the one who kept us in line,” Brooks says. “I know when camps are gearing up it is easy to hire just anyone who needs a job, but they need to find counselors who are passionate and who want to help campers excel.”

She said campers were also hugely affected by opportunities to do something outside of their ordinary routine, a particularly significant factor for those with disabilities and also for their parents.

“Things they enjoyed that they don’t get to do at home – snowshoeing, skiing, snowboarding,” Harrist says. “It was great to hear sessions with those with disabilities who may have to use a wheelchair talking about going skiing, getting to do something they wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else.”

Both Harrist and Brooks said some of the most emotional responses on the tapes were those of parents of children with disabilities who were overwhelmed when they saw what their kids could do.

A blonde pig-tailed college girl holds a basket of bowling pins.

“I remember one mom seeing her child having a blast and realizing that, out of concern, she had been the one holding him back,” Brooks says. “It changed how she saw her child.”

Military parents who have a child with disabilities often need camps the most, considering that deployment of one parent typically leaves the other as the solo caregiver.

Parents have to completely trust that camp staffers can keep their children safe and accommodate their special needs.

“This camp allowed them to do respite care, so parents were told, ‘You stay at the lodge and relax. We are taking your kids dog-sledding,’” Harrist says. “It’s not ‘Can we take your child? It’s ‘We are going.’”

Brooks says her research gave her more confidence to modify activities while ensuring camper safety at Finley YMCA Day Camp, where she worked all summer. She has encouraged her co-workers to do likewise.

“When you have a special-needs list about 30 people long and only three or four inclusion counselors, you need to be able to find ways to include every camper yourself and not always call for help,” she says. “Counselors learn fast that they need to take some time to know their campers and what their needs are. They need to be aware of who is in their group and figure out ways to accommodate a child with a special need without making that child stand out.”

Building trust

Brooks says a good camp experience doesn’t end when it’s time to go home. At the very least, she believes time at the winter adventure camp gives military kids something to talk about back at school, especially when faced with difficult questions.

“Sometimes when other students find out a child has a parent in the military, they will ask questions like, ‘How many people has your Dad killed?’ – topics that children don’t want to even think about, much less discuss,” Brooks says. “After the camp they have memories and stories they can share and something else to talk about that relates to the military but isn’t focused on that deployed parent.”

She has also been impressed with the depth of relationships that campers and families are able to build over just three days.

“It has been interesting to hear the tone of voice in these interviews, especially with the kids coming to camp not knowing each other, but by the end, on the recordings, they sound like they are best friends,” Brooks says. Some repeat attenders even arranged mini-reunions to spend time together before heading to camp.

Harrist says that kind of support system can benefit camp families, many of whom have challenges trusting those outside of the military. It’s one reason he spent time building trust with campers before conducting research interviews. And he was sure to let them know of his own experience as a military kid.

Six people dressed in winter coats play in the snow at an adventure camp.

He’s most excited about the uniqueness of the study. “There’s not a lot of research about camps for military kids, so for me it has allowed me a peephole into the world of serving military-dependent children and military-dependent children with disabilities,” Harrist says. “It’s a springboard for more research.”

And, he says, the need to serve these audiences isn’t going away any time soon. In its most recent report in 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau identified approximately 2.8 million youth with some form of disability, and since the inception of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, over 2 million youth have been affected by parental deployment.

When they’re finished, Brooks and Harrist hope to present their research at a national camp association conference and have it published in a recreation journal. They are among seven Wingate University faculty-student teams that conducted research this summer as part of the Reeves grants.

Aug. 22, 2018

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